Friday, 22 August 2008

John Silver tries Sushi

A group of friends organised a trip to a Japanese restaurant to have some Sushi, and I was invited. I had never tried Sushi before; I'm not a huge fan of fish, and till then the idea of eating it raw had always made the blood run to my head. But this time I thought, why not? After all, if I could be converted to liking the Indian vegan dishes that my flatmate prepared, surely it was only a matter of prejudice on my side to believe that I wouldn't like Sushi. Well, I told myself, it was time to get rid of this prejudice, and have a new experience.

We decide to meet at 6.30 outside our college, but due to a tropical rainstorm which got lost on its way to the Amazon and mistakenly stumbled upon York instead, only to start running in circles around my flat throwing buckets of torrential downpour, we opt for a taxi. The group is, as usual, highly cosmopolitan: an Italian (me), a Swedish guy, an English girl, and a Japanese fellow who seems intent on perpetuating national stereotypes by lugging around a camera the size of a water storage tank and taking pictures of just about every motherfucking atom which passes under our eyes. Together, we all take the taxi.

We enter the restaurant and make our choices from the menu. Immediately I make a fool of myself because, you know, I snap my fingers at the waiter to get him to come over, and the English girl sitting next to me blushes like I'd thrown a spoon at him and screamed 'Oi!' Then, when I inquire as to the causes of her embarrassment, she looks down and says, 'you're supposed to clear your throat, not flick your fingers.' Oh, ah. Do you know that feeling when you really need a punching sack and a couple of baseball bats and a good half-hour? Yeah.

So the time comes to order. We all ask for Sushi, except for the Swede who goes for some kind of bowl of meat and noodles, because if he isn’t different he isn’t happy (he has a hairstyle like a jellyfish just died on his head, so you’d expect him to feel distinct enough already). The food is damn expensive too, thirteen pounds for the course. Some starters are brought along (raw meat, apparently the hobs aren't working in this restaurant's kitchen), then there's a void where nothing happens and we grow hungry.

After what seems like a very long wait, the Sushi is finally brought along and placed on our tables. I look at it: a cardboard rectangle containing an array of raw fish-chunks lobbed over blocky squares of rice, and some salad in the corner. I hadn't thought about it before coming here, but the sight of raw fish was really starting to get to my psyche now that I had it under my eyes. I was beginning to feel faintly ill. I took a whiff of the stuff and I was reminded of a fish-stall I used to see in sunny Agropoli when I was seven or eight, the odour of which was so potent that fifteen years later I still encounter it occasionally in my dreams.

'How exactly am I supposed to eat this?', I wondered, looking at the hunks before me. I mean, for one thing I've been at war with Japanese sticks almost since I was born (you wouldn't believe just how blitzed it drives me when one of them breaks; I could probably go skiing down a mountain with one foot while simultaneously shaving my nipples and eating a cup of cereal with a fork and I'd find the experience less infuriating). But aside from that, the blocks in front of me are friggin' huge. I'm gonna need a knife or something to cut them down.

I turn around to the English girl to see how she eats them and before I can even say a word she grabs this salmon-slab with the sticks and flings it into her mouth. Whole. Jesus Christ, I think to myself. 'Is that how you're supposed to eat it?', I ask her. 'Absolutely,' she promptly replies, and the Japanese guy confirms this for me. Oh, ah.

I look at the wedges on my plate. I take the sticks and, trying not to think too much, I lift up the first portion I find: a brick of raw octopus. I feel it immediately tremendous in my mouth. I chew the rice up and eat that, then I try swallowing the octopus. It goes to the back of my throat, and for some reason it must have found it the most comfortable place it had ever been lodged in, because it settles there like a snail in its shell and refuses to go anywhere else, either back or forth. For something like twenty seconds it does not move anywhere away from that single clogging spot where all the air or food or saliva is meant to pass. I start bobbing my tongue up and down in an effort to get the octopus into my stomach. The little rings that they have under their legs are rubbing coldly against the roof of my mouth. I'm borderline choking. It's like trying to swallow a bar of soap wrapped up in a cold condom. Eventually the octopus limb goes beyond the line of the tongue, and, with the slowness of an amber drop descending the bark of a tree, it rolls down my throat and into my stomach.

Deep breath.

I'm just about to wipe my sweaty forehead with a tissue when the English girl goes, 'try the flatfish Andrea' and she grabs it with her own sticks and catapults it into my mouth. A storm of cold shivers runs down my spine as the nefarious substance invades my tongue. I could swear for a second that I can feel it moving, it is still alive as I am eating it. Then it breaks against the teeth and follows the way of the octopus.

Re-read the above about twelve times, and you'll have an idea of what the rest of the meal was like. In an attempt to get done with it as fast as I can, I go through the subsequent portions in such a rush that I forget to cut the tails off the prawns, and thus discover that prawn-tails are the single most irritating thing it is humanly possible to have in one's mouth: they dance around your teeth and scrape your tongue, they drive you crazy, they forbid you from swallowing anything else while simultaneously refusing to find their way out of your mouth and in general they tend to do everything that is conceivable in the world of physics to get your head off your neck.

No dessert. The place was already expensive enough as it was.

I got home and went to sleep, and I had nightmares of giant fish eating me alive. The next day, when I had my cereal, I could swear the Coco Pops tasted of squid.

'Did you like the Sushi?', the English girl asked me the next day.
'Oh yes, I thought it was gorgeous.' Like drowning.


Brad Gallaway said...

Most amusing, I must say.

I love sushi myself (though only certain kinds... octopus is revolting, i will push clams or sea cucumber off my plate, and any sort of whitefish makes me gag) but in general it sounds like maybe you went with a group a little too gung-ho for a beginner.

if you ever decide to try it again, i'd recommend the tamago (egg omelet on rice), california roll (avocado, cooked crabmeat and cucumber), inari (sweet tofu with rice, almost like a dessert), and either a tuna roll or spicy tuna roll.

these selections are pretty safe and not very alien to someone who's not a sushi vet... an excellent starting point, if you're so inclined. it also helps to mix the soy sauce with the wasabi and dip to sort of cover up the fish taste if you like spicy, or at least just do the soy if not.

sorry you had such a terrible time out... sushi can be a great social meal if done right.

John Silver said...

Thanks Brad - and to be fair, even though the food itself wasn't to my taste, I didn't have a bad time that night at all.

I did use soy and wasabi. My impression with sushi is that I could appreciate it as something peripheral to a main meal... say as a starter or part of a buffet. A full meal of it is a little too strong a taste for me, especially considering it's a cold dish.